A critical mineral and a burgeoning Canadian industry
by Joel Chury
Reprinted by permission of Resource World
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Fluorspar (the commercial name for fluorite or CaF2) may just be the most important but least-known industrial mineral. Among other applications, it’s most commonly used in manufacturing aluminum, steel, concrete and toothpaste. It’s also the precursor ingredient for hydrofluoric acid, which is vital to the manufacture of all fluorocarbons, which are used in refrigerators, air conditioners and propellants.
The global market for fluorspar consumes approximately six million tonnes a year, to be used in products that generate over $30 billion in annual sales. That being the case, it’s a wonder that the mineral is relatively unknown to investors. But like the meteoric rise of rare earth elements in 2010 and the more recent surge in graphite, fluorspar might soon get the attention it deserves.
“The problem with fluorspar is that nobody understands what it is, yet it’s a part of everyone’s life,” says Lindsay Gorrill, President/CEO of Canada Fluorspar Inc TSXV:CFI, which could become a fluorspar producer within the next two years. “I think one of our biggest issues is in explaining to the market what fluorspar is and where it’s used. There is currently no replacement for it in its uses.”
Like rare earths and graphite, fluorspar is mostly produced in China, although not in the same proportion compared to other countries. China currently represents approximately 53% of global fluorspar production. China also consumes 52% of global production. To protect its supply, the government has imposed a 15% export tax on the mineral.
As a result, fluorspar prices soared from approximately $130 a tonne in 2003 to a current price in the $550-to-$600 range. The price varies depending on the source. Much of the fluorspar used in North America comes from Mexico, where acid-grade fluorspar sells for $550 a tonne, compared to Chinese acid-grade fluorspar which sells for $600.
Like the differences between large flake and amorphous graphite, fluorspar comes in two different forms—metallurgical grade and acid grade.
Acid grade is considered most desirable. Consumers include multi-billion-dollar entities like DuPont and Honeywell, which use fluorspar to produce fluorocarbons and fluoropolymers. They rely largely on Mexican supply, despite the fact it requires additional, costly refining to remove traces of arsenic that are unique to the Mexican product. Currently there are only four plants in the world that can complete the arsenic-removal process; DuPont and Honeywell each own one.
Metallurgical grade is also useful in manufacturing, though its applications aren’t quite as diverse. Metallurgical grade is often used as a flux in iron, steel and aluminum smelting, as well as in cement making. Though slightly cheaper, metallurgical grade represents approximately 15% of the overall fluorspar market.
Acid grade’s greater demand is driven by the global market for hydrofluoric acid, the primary use of the mineral. As much as 45% to 60% of hydrofluoric acid consumption is used to make hydrofluorocarbons (or HFCs) to be used in coolants.
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